Promotional still for "Parasite" featuring various characters standing or lounging in an expensive backyard with their eyes covered by either a black or white bar

Korean Cinema Recommendations

While Korean cinema has been the source of iconic and critically-acclaimed movies for years, its status as a global juggernaut has rapidly expanded with international successes like Parasite, which was the first foreign language film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2020. Whether you’re already a die-hard fan of Korean cinema or you’re interested in checking it out for the first time, here’s a list of our ten favorite Korean films (in no particular order).

For more recommendations, check out the Korean Cinema Collection on American University’s library website. All the recommended films from both lists are available on DVD for members of the AU community to borrow.

Past Lives (2023)

Still from "Past Lives" featuring the main characters gazing into each other's eyes on the subway

Director: Celine Song

Past Lives is a quiet, intimate portrayal of childhood crushes whose lives keep intersecting despite dozens of years and thousands of miles of separation. While the storyline may be especially poignant for immigrants who have left their whole world behind, everyone can relate to the themes of revisiting paths not taken and old friends left behind, especially given the way modern technology has made it nearly impossible to forget our pasts and the people once in them. The relatively simple cinematography allows the acting to really shine, and the distinct realism in the character interactions and the way technology affects them makes this feel like a glimpse into someone’s actual life. At times both romantic and melancholy, Past Lives will leave you ruminating on your own past and the relationships you’ve left behind.

Available on DVD

Minari (2020)

Still from "Minari" featuring a Korean family holding hands on a farm with an American flag in the background

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Another film highlighting the experiences of Korean immigrants in North America, Minari tells the story of a family trying to grow new roots on an Arkansan farm. Tensions rise as the family struggles to agree on unified goals and what they want from life. While the characters could easily slip into being simple archetypes reflecting a particular point of view, they remain steadfastly human, with all the complexities and individuality that entails.

Available on DVD

Parasite (2019)

Promotional still for "Parasite" featuring various characters standing or lounging in an expensive backyard with their eyes covered by either a black or white bar

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho is a master filmmaker whose portrayals of economic inequality are all but perfected in the global sensation that is Parasite. Combining multiple genres and surprises best left unspoiled, Parasite depicts the intertwined lives of two families from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, all of whom feel like legitimate people even when they toe the line of becoming exaggerations of themselves. Whether you’ve seen this film a dozen times or this is your first watch, there are plenty of things to keep you captivated as the plot devolves into chaos.

Available on DVD or streaming

Memories of Murder (2003)

Still from "Memories of Murder" featuring four man crouching in a field

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Memories of Murder is a crime thriller inspired by a real-life South Korean serial killer. It tells the story of violent rapes and murders, the ill-prepared detectives that investigate them, and the missteps they make along the way. Dark and gripping, this film shows off Bong Joon-ho’s skills as a filmmaker long before Parasite made him into a global household name.

Available on DVD

The Handmaiden (2016)

Promotional still for "The Handmaiden" featuring the four main characters standing side by side and staring at the camera

Director: Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a masterclass in recontextualization. As soon as you think you have a solid grasp on the plot and where it’s headed, the pieces get scrambled up and put back together again to form a whole new picture. The Handmaiden is dark, violent, and sensual, with every moment as engaging as the next. This is a film you will want to watch again from the start as soon as the credits roll just to appreciate the complexity and skill involved in executing such a perfectly crafted narrative.

Available on DVD

Oldboy (2003)

Still from "Oldboy" featuring the main character looking disheveled and wielding a hammer

Director: Park Chan-wook

Just like in The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s more famous thriller Oldboy uses the piece-by-piece addition of new information to reframe the audience’s understanding of the plot and characters. In this thrilling tale of revenge, the action pushes forward relentlessly in seek of answers for both the characters and the audience. However, when the truth is finally revealed, it is clear that ignorance is far more desirable. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, Oldboy is a perfect encapsulation of the way Korean films are willing to push the envelope in order to tell a captivating story.

Available on DVD

Train to Busan (2016)

Still from "Train to Busan" featuring the main character covered in blood, looking over his shoulder in a train car with frightened people behind him

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan has all of the elements that make a great zombie film—an unsuspected crowd about to encounter the infected for the first time, survivors trapped in an enclosed area, and a group of strangers whose survival depends on their ability to work together. The film tackles themes of human nature, selfishness vs. sacrifice, and the relationships we have with both our loved ones and complete strangers. Full of action and heart, this is one zombie flick you don’t want to miss.

Available on DVD

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Still from "I Saw the Devil" featuring a man looking down on another man who is covered in blood

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Another dark revenge tale like Oldboy, I Saw the Devil tells the story of a federal agent who goes to great lengths to hunt and torment the serial killer who murdered his wife. Equal parts violent and gripping, I Saw the Devil leaves the audience grappling with the question of whether revenge is ultimately satisfying or futile.

Available on DVD

Masquerade (2012)

Still from "Masquerade" featuring the main character wearing a red robe over white inner clothes and a gold pin in his hair

Director: Choo Chang-min

Masquerade is a film with stunning production value and even more impressive acting. This historical drama tells a fictionalized tale of a stand-in for King Gwang-hae, the 15th ruler of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. The attention to detail in the style and goings-on of the Joseon-era court create an extremely convincing backdrop for an emotionally rich and engaging narrative.

Available on DVD

Burning (2018)

Still from "Burning" featuring the three main characters sitting on a porch and looking off into the distance

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Unlike some of the other, more fast-paced thrillers on this list, Burning utilizes slow, dreadful suspense that leaves the viewer feeling uneasy throughout the film without always knowing why. While the film gives enough information to piece together answers to its various mysteries, it never outright states the truth, leaving the audience to grapple with the idea that they may be missing something important long after the film is over.

Available on DVD and streaming

Posted in Recommendations, Top Picks.